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Doctors say BJC prioritizing older employees for COVID-19 vaccine, not frontline workers

“A 30-year-old nurse who has not been vaccinated still must work on the COVID floor while an administrator is getting a vaccine," one doctor said.

ST. LOUIS — Doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital tell 5 On Your Side the hospital’s administration is vaccinating its staff according to age, and not putting frontline workers first.

The policy — which differs from SSM and Mercy’s plan — means some doctors, residents, nurses, respiratory therapists and emergency room physicians who treat COVID-19 patients have been told they won’t be vaccinated until the end of January.

And secretaries and other support staff are getting vaccinated ahead of them, according to the doctors who spoke to 5 On Your Side on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from hospital administration.

In a statement, Dr. Clay Dunagan, Chief Clinical Officer for BJC HealthCare, said the system is following CDC guidance and giving priority to staff who interact with patients.

But the doctors who spoke exclusively to 5 On Your Side said that is not true.

“Barnes will say ‘we are doing all of our patient-facing employees,’ but it is a lie,’” one doctor said. “The secretaries do not interact with patients, and more specifically COVID patients, and yet we will be grinding day and night with COVID patients for the next several weeks.

“It’s just gross misutilization of ‘frontline’ vaccines.”

Another doctor gave an example of how the current policy is playing out.

“A 30-year-old nurse who has not been vaccinated still must work on the COVID floor while an administrator is getting a vaccine,” the doctor said. “They’re being asked to treat people with COVID over the holidays while not being vaccinated for a month or more and some administrators who have never treated COVID patients are getting vaccinated.”

A similar situation unfolded at Stanford Medicine, where only seven of more than 1,300 residents were selected to receive the vaccine in the first round of 5,000 doses, according to National Public Radio.

Leaders of Stanford Health Care and Stanford School of Medicine sent an email to staff Friday apologizing for its vaccine distribution plan, and vowing to vaccinate “a substantial segment of our community” once a larger shipment of vaccines arrive, hopefully next week, according to NPR.

The Barnes Jewish Hospital doctors who spoke to 5 On Your Side said there have been talks among them to stage a similar protest next week.

“The same thing happened at Stanford, and they apologized,” one doctor said. “WashU has not made any indication that they’re even willing to change.”

Some support staff members and administrators, who do not interface with COVID patients have been vaccinated, one doctor said.

“Some felt awkward getting vaccine, saying ‘I feel bad getting the vaccine over someone who works with COVID patients,’” one doctor said. "But it's not their fault."

In an internal memo obtained by 5 On Your Side, BJC administrators wrote: "The decision to prioritize the first round of vaccine to health care providers was made at a federal level and every health care organization is expected to follow that guidance. However, the logistics behind distribution are determined locally. For example, some systems chose to vaccinate their patient-facing caregivers by department. At BJC, we are scheduling our caregivers by age -- starting with those 50 and above and opening up waves of appointments by decade, based on appointment availability. The goal is to have every patient facing caregiver vaccinated by early 2021. Organizing by age rather than department has two benefits: it gives first access to those at the high end of the risk scale; and it mitigates risk of having multiple members of the same department off work at one time due to possible side effects from the vaccination."

The full statement from Dr. Clay Dunagan, Chief Clinical Officer for BJC HealthCare, is as follows:

“BJC HealthCare and Washington University School of Medicine’s vaccine distribution model was based on CDC recommendations and a painstaking review of risk factors to ensure we protect our caregivers most at-risk of suffering adverse effects of COVID-19. First and foremost, we are giving priority to staff who interact with patients. That means everybody being offered a vaccine at this time has patient interaction – including doctors, nurses, housekeepers, food service workers, technicians and more. Any leader from our organizations who receives vaccine is only eligible to do so because they also deliver patient care. Within this patient-facing priority group, we are scheduling in descending order of age because research shows a higher risk of mortality among those caregivers over forty. Further, due to the effective and vigilant use of PPE, we are seeing very few cases of employee exposures from working with COVID-19 patients. We expect to offer vaccines to every member of our team in a patient-facing role in the coming weeks. Given the dynamic nature of the vaccine supply, we are committed to ensuring we prioritize vaccinations in the most equitable manner possible. We recognize this is a stressful time and are extremely grateful to all of our caregivers for their tireless efforts to keep our patients and our community safe. We’ve shared these plans internally through town hall meetings and ongoing employee communications and feel confident the plan we have in place is the most effective means to protect our entire workforce.”

An online petition calling for BJC to change its policy has more than 400 signatures.